Shortly after he moved Geotab to North America from South Africa, chief executive officer Neil Cawse soon connected with Colin Sutherland, who had managed the aftermarket parts business for Freightliner of Canada.
From there, the Oakville, Ontario-based company evolved by building a software platform that collected data from vehicles using an algorithm that sampled and recorded data. The company's GO device plugs into the diagnostics port (OBD-II) to gather an array of operational data about the vehicle and driving behavior for commercial fleets.
In recent years, Geotab has moved aggressively to embrace trends such as connected vehicles, electrification, smart cities, and big data analytics. At its Geotab Connect 2018 conference in Toronto earlier this month, Sutherland updated the company's partners and resellers about its approach to looming issues around the cybersecurity of vehicles, possible manufacturer restrictions of vehicle data, and company requirements around employee privacy involving off-duty fleet drivers.
Sutherland, Geotab's executive vice president of sales and marketing, spoke with Automotive Fleet during the conference, where the company announced it had acquired FleetCarma, a telematics specialist for electric and hybrid vehicles, and launched a big data website.
Automotive Fleet: What do you see as the value of Geotab Connect to the fleet world? What do you see as value propositions for your audience?
Colin Sutherland: Openness and transparency is not just a platform for us but it's also what this conference is all about. Most of the fleet management companies are in the room, and most support the Geotab platform. When you're an operating system, as we are for telematics, it's about how you express the technology and how you become relevant yourself. The other part is openness. We talk about business disruption a lot and the transformation that's about to take place, and how to embrace business disruption as a positive thing.
AF: We've seen some consolidation in the telematics industry over the past few years. What's your perspective? Do you see more consolidation, more acquisitions, and what do you make of the new landscape in 2018?
Sutherland: I think the acquisitions were primarily driven from venture capital or private equity people that were trying to focus mostly on the recurring revenue and a subscription base, so it was mostly financially motivated, which is natural I suppose. They have very short-term horizons, even quarterly metrics they have to reach. It changes the culture of a company, and we've seen that in the past 10 years with many of the acquisitions.
Geotab is privately held, no debt, and we're able to make investments like the acquisition of FleetCarma, which is a long-term aspirational goal of the fleet industry to go electric. A private equity company would never make that bet because they're not going to see a their expected multiple return on investment in three years. Geotab on the other hand, makes long term planning decisions. We're enabling openness of data in the fleet world where many investor-owned companies prefer closed, captive subscription customers.
AF: We've seen in the past few years the wireless carriers get into this in a big way. Not only Verizon Connect with their acquisitions, but T-Mobile has come into the space. AT&T has their partnership with FleetComplete. It makes sense because they want devices on their networks. What do you see as the ramifications of that?
Sutherland: We provide a platform and our partners are able to implement our platform using the tools we have that expresses how they want to go to market. T-Mobile sells SyncUp Fleet, which is a white label version of Geotab. So they're implementing Geotab for SMB markets in a way that makes sense for T-Mobile. AT&T is also a Geotab reseller – that was announced in February – for large fleets; they have FleetComplete for their small business. It's a full transparency ecosystem here at Geotab, we had a wireless panel at our conference including T-Mobile, AT&T, T-Mobile, Sprint, Bell, and Telefonica in Spain all sitting together discussing the future of 3G, 5G, and LTE. We are trying to educate the fleet buyer. It's not just how many bars I have or dropped calls or coverage footprint. There's value in the investment the wireless carriers make in their infrastructure trying to cater for the needs to fleet, autonomous cars, IoT (internet of things), and smart cities.
AF: What are some ways we might see the GO device change in the coming few years?
Sutherland: Our device itself has three core components. One is the ability to record information in a universal way. You connect it to a vehicle. It pulls codes from multiple, different protocols and encrypts them on the device and then encrypts them in transmission so it's secure. There's a cybersecurity aspect of the device that's become even more underscored over the past year and will become even more relevant as we go forward. It has an expansion part to it, so you can add things like driver identification, input sensors, and Bluetooth beacons into the device. At the conference, some of our partners referred to Geotab as their "fleet operating system" with content provided by Geotab software tools as well as third party applications found on our Marketplace. That is a possibility that we embrace as we are enabling fleets and telematics industry leaders to trust our Geotab platform tools.
I'd like to think that one of the things we could see in the future is this idea of vehicle-to-vehicle or vehicle-to-infrastructure communication in the aftermarket. People think that safe driving means that a vehicle has to say to the vehicle next to it "there's something obstructing your path." We all know if we're relying on a brand new vehicle to be purchased with all of this new safety technology , it's still going to take 11 years before only half of the vehicles on the road are actually going to be equipped to make roads safer. I'd like to think we could actually take our aftermarket device and connect it to the older vehicles and update them with some of these new technologies. It's an aftermarket retrofit that enables even faster adoption to keep roads safer and reduce fatalities.
AF: What are your thoughts about the automakers, and could they eventually restrict access to the OBD-II port? Is there any concern that they would restrict access to that under the guise of making vehicles secure from hackers?
Sutherland: It would be great if telematics recording technology in cars existed for fleets, because it facilitates the installation. One obstacle to telematics adoption more broadly is installing technology in the vehicle even though our technology is fairly simple to install. For some people they would still rather just flip a switch and have it happen. The facilitation of having things OEM-installed is terrific. The downside is there are varying data libraries. A Ford vehicle and GM vehicle are communicating data differently. So we still have to be able to normalize data coming from car makers into a standard solution. Geotab normalizes data for fuel, odometer and other important fleet information across most fleet car and truck makes and models. In addition, we have sponsored the Neutral Vehicle working group as a possible strategy to help automakers find a path forward together.
AF: The neutral vehicle is a vehicle that has an open architecture that would allow any telematics company or developer to develop an app for that vehicle, right?
Sutherland: It's an open platform for multiple-input sources, including automakers and other telematics devices, to be able to bring data together and then have the data be available through an open architecture with normalized codes, essentially creating a standard for open development. You mentioned cybersecurity. We're a member of Auto-ISAC (Automotive Information Sharing & Analysis Center). We're sitting right next to the car makers and we're proactively working towards developing best practices for how data can be securely stored and transmitted. We have been acknowledged by Auto-ISAC as a thought leader in this space, which is terrific. And we believe that's where standards are going to come.
For the fleet industry, I don't think that's the real threat that automakers might restrict access unilaterally. I think the real threat is that the data coming from the automaker is being delivered for the consumer market and the fleet world needs more data than the consumer. We need the seatbelt, we need add-ons for driver identification, and we need to know of vehicle collisions while parked as well as crash data (seconds before and after impact when driving). We want to know how to go and coach a driver if he's driving over a posted speed limit, and we need GPS data more frequently than every couple of minutes. It's not about restricting data; it's about the frequency, quality and the right to use data for preserving a fleet's need for privacy.
AF: Who owns the data?
Sutherland: Neil (Cawse) made a comment the other day. He said no one can own data, because data can't be destroyed. You can own your phone because at some point your phone is useless, and you're going to recycle it. But if data can never be destroyed, and it's going to be on this planet long after you're gone, then can you own something that will always be here and eventually leave you? It may be a question of the custody and caretaking of the data and not the idea of ownership. Some of the courts will decide co-ownership or co-stewardship and who actually owns the data. We believe the customer controls access to the data.
It seems that there is some consensus that the fleet that is using the vehicle on a day-to-day basis that is generating the data is who controls access to the data. What access they wish to share back to their fleet management company such as check engine light and fuel and things the FMC needs like odometer readings and maintenance is a relationship between the fleet management professional company and the organization that's generating the data. The generator needs to make sure they're opting in or opting out. You can't own something that can never be destroyed. We have to think differently, when we're thinking about vehicles and data.